Are leaders born or made?

For the people responsible for employee learning and development, this isn’t an idle question. After all, if leadership is an innate quality that can’t be taught or learned, you’re wasting your time with leadership training. On the other hand, if the ability to lead is acquired, you certainly DO want to train your organization’s leaders, both present and future.

Well, as with many important questions, the answer is: All of the above. Leadership is partly an inherited trait, and partly a learned skill. The best news for advocates of leadership training is that leadership ability is more acquired than innate.

And in a new study, researchers at the University of Illinois say they’ve isolated the best way to help people acquire it.

Confidence is key
The Illinois researchers highlight a 2008 review of human development studies that concluded 70% of leadership ability was learned, while 30% was inherited. And based on their own new research with 165 students in leadership development classes, the Illinois team says that leadership “self-efficacy” is the key ingredient for any further development of leaders.

What exactly is “self-efficacy”? Simply, it’s someone’s belief that he or she is capable of doing something, in this case being a leader.

The llinois study found that students entering leadership classes with already-existing confidence in their ability to lead were able both to pick up leadership skills — methods and techniques — and to increase their motivation to actually lead.

Those who entered the 15-week classes with low ratings of self-efficacy didn’t pick up much in the way of skills or motivation. But, significantly, they DID increase their confidence in their ability to lead. This meant that such people were ready for skills and motivation training in later courses.

Ready, willing, able
The researchers defined leadership as the process of influencing a group of people toward a common goal.

And they conceptualized their findings about leadership training in a Ready, Willing and Able model.

To learn to be leaders, people first have to be Ready — i.e., to believe they can do it. Then they can move on to the Willing piece — motivation — and the Able piece — skills.

The takeaway
So what’s the takeaway for those tasked with employee learning?

  • First, you CAN teach leadership.
  • Second, if you want a rapid return from your leadership training efforts, focus on imparting motivation and skills to employees who already see themselves as potential leaders.
  • Third, if you’re willing to wait for the payoff, it’s possible to raise the confidence of employees who doubt their leadership potential to the point where they’re ready to take on motivation and skills training.

How you actually go about structuring your leadership training is outside the scope of the research, and is a story for another day. But the research demonstrates that such training may well be worth the time and effort.

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